In his painting Flight into Egypt, Battista Dossi took great care to tell the story of the Holy Family at the very moment the painting shows. He evokes the urgency in the life of the traveling Holy Family as they flee for the life of their child. All that needs to be said in the painting is told with color and precision, movement and depth, and the entirely personal glimpse into the lives of the Holy Family. Battista's work is at once compelling and evocative of the situation.
The work entitled Flight into Egypt is oil on panel by the Ferrarese artist Battista Dossi, (circa 1490 to 1548) who was the younger brother of Dosso Dossi. The brothers were the primary painters in the court of Ferrara under the Alfonso I'd'Este and Ercole II d'Este. Unfortunately, most of the documented work the brothers did for the court was lost to time as it was ephemeral work. That is to say, the brothers painted frescoes for local residences, made designs for tapestries and theatre sets; they painted decorations for festivals, banners and tableware and even coins. Their work included the decoration of barges and carriages. Happily, a fairly substantial number of easel paintings created by the brothers were preserved. It is interesting that many of these works commissioned by the courts were of mythological or allegorical subjects, a fact that points to the intellectual and cultural interests of the members of the Ferrarese court. The Dosso brothers were considered to be highly original painters for their time, but some art historians point to Raphael in Rome and Giorgione in Venice as contemporary influences.
Another version of the work exists that is nearly identical to this one, with only minor differences in the foreground and the placement of tree stumps on the path to the right. Both works are considered to have been painted by Battista at different times. The two brothers, Dosso and Battista, are believed to have occasionally collaborated on their art, but art historians are focused on learning more about Battista's development as an independent artist. The figure of the Madonna is considered to be of Battista's type of model, and the lines of the draperies are also typical of Battista, the younger of the two brothers.
Dosso's work is characterized by an appreciation for the effect of glowing color and light and shadow, as well as for the poetic qualities with which his landscapes are imbued. The rendering of the beautiful panoramic landscape on the right in the painting is a somewhat fanciful vista, yet has the craggy rocks that are characteristic of Battista's oeuvre. Some art historians consider the rocky renderings to be the younger brother's main contribution to the works coming out of Dosso's shop.
The colors and shading look as though they were inspired by the Flemish chromatic recession. There is movement from brown to green to blue, and then upwards and deeply toward the white horizon. But the yellow-green almost acidic color of the landscape is considered to be typical of Ferrarese. It is a northern landscape that is seen in also in the Martyrdom of Saint Stephen (Fundacion Coleccion Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid) by Battista from c. 1530-35. Battista's painting of Flight from Egypt is dated circa 1535 by Humfrey. The feeling of receding background is created by the parallel strata, which are also established by the dominant colors, as described above.
The comparison piece is the Madonna and Child Enthroned with Donors and Saints Dominic and Elizabeth of Hungary by Lippo Vanni. The work is Gothic from the Middle Ages, and depicts the subject of the Madonna and Child, which was exceedingly common in Western art. It is a devotional work that shows the stylistic innovations that were seen in the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Paintings on panels, canvas, and frescoes of the Madonna and her child Jesus are the dominant icons of the Catholic and Orthodox churches. The subject of the Madonna and Child is so common that most other renowned artists, whether painters or sculptors, during the Gothic and Renaissance periods have at some time created their own version of the Madonna and Child.
The painting by Lippo Vanni, who was the leading illuminator in Siena in the middle of the fifteenth century, is tempura on wood. The three panels of the triptych depict the Madonna and Child on the throne with donors along...
Vanni's colors are intense and the lines are clear demarcations of the spaces. The center panel of the triptych is the most significant of the three in Gothic art, and generally most other art. Mary wears a black robe in the painting, and her hand holds the baby Jesus. The back of the throne gives a certain perception of depth in an otherwise flat painting. The donors are seen kneeling on the floor by the throne of Elizabeth and her son, Prince Andreas of the French house of Anjou, who wears a cap and rob covered with fleur-de-lis.
Although the subjects in Vanni's painting and Battista's paintings are similar, the stylistic difference establishes them as centuries and worlds apart. The Gothic style is stiff, flat, and lifeless, in a way. It is difficult to image the Gothic figures as real, flesh and blood people, while Battista's rendering of Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus are compellingly real. Battista's figures move across the painting like actors on a stage: they are going somewhere, and the viewer is even able to see their destination in the painting. Mary's arm is extended toward her baby and Joseph, as though she can't bear not holding him in her arms as they travel. She is also pointing forward into the future for the viewer, willing an understanding of the jeopardy that the family is moving toward.
Indeed, the two painting illustrate the enormous changes in art across the passing of several centuries. It is not just a matter of better pigments or better materials on which to paint or illustrate. The concepts of representation changed markedly. The Gothic work seems more a part of the lettering it might have represented on the pages of religious tomes, while the Renaissance work could decidedly function as an illustration of the written work. But it is so much more as it tells a story rather than just showing an image of people. The Gothic triptych is not so far removed from the images that were created for the outsides of coffins and mausoleums, or set in the floors of castles and churches where people were buried or entombed. Vanni's work serves to identify important people -- to preserve their importance in a devotional work that will serve as a placeholder in some official capacity. Battista's work also functions as an identifying work -- as the viewer is intended to know who the characters are. Characters is the operable word since the people in Battista's painting are caught up in a story as the actors, the doers, the subjects of the story.
Battista meant to do more than identify the Holy Family, he intended, and succeeded in, placing them at a crucial point in their personal (and soon to be very public) story. The viewer is shown the action that carries the story forward, and so is linked to the past and the present in a way that the Gothic portrayal of the Madonna and Child simply cannot accomplish. And to the point, the Gothic painting was not intended to show the people identified in the triptych in such a dramatic manner.
The paintings evoke entirely different emotions through the use of colors and implied motion, and the movement of the eye from foreground to horizon. If the viewer were to surmise an overlying tone of life during Gothic times vs. life during the Renaissance, the difference would be staggering. While religious devotion is clearly evident in the Gothic work, there is an absence of any indicator of quotidian life. Consider a Flemish painting of domestic life in which the viewer is pulled into the work by the light and by the activity depicted. There is Battista's painting the same sort of beckoning. The viewer wants to hurry along the road with the Holy Family. Certainly, the viewer experiences the overarching anxiety. Joseph's countenance is difficult to discern, as he looks worn, weary, and distracted -- his age clearly apparent as the family navigates the long road to their destination.
The viewer has no concept of life during the Gothic time that he Vanni's painting was created. At the same time, there is a sense that the people to whom this painting would mean something would also be well versed in the stories that surround the identities of the people in the story. It is just that his information is privileged, owned as it was by the clergy and by the devout. If the story has been shared, it has…
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